The baklava is flaky, light as air, comes stuffed with pistachios (65 cents) or walnuts (50 cents) and wipes off the fingers with one quick lick. Sweet, but not sickly so. None of the tooth-killing glueballs some bakers brag about. The baklava that Sami Chway's mother makes is a dentist's delight.
A cheery, diminutive woman who chatters in Arabic, Nadia Chway tickles the taste buds from the bright, white kitchen of Alexandria's Mediterranean Bakery (374 S. Pickett St.), where, in the case of baklava, she eschews honey as adhesive, instead concocting her own gloop from sugar, orange blossom water and lemon juice.
The same small hands go into creating an assortment of low-priced Lebanese goodies: namoors (a gooey, macaroon-like brownie, 35 cents); mamoul (cookies crammed with walnuts or pistachios, 40 cents and up); tamr (cookies pregnant with chewy dates, 40 cents) . . . sigh.
But a loaf of bread that emerges from the brick oven like a deflated socer ball is the cornerstone of Sami Chway's dream.Pita bread. The Lebanese bagel.
Pita bread is round, soft and hollow inside. It can be stuffed snug as a glove for a sandwich, or tugged apart and dipped into a variety of appetizers served in Middle Eastern restaurants.
"Pita bread is to the Lebanese like rice is to the Chinese: We can't eat anything without it," says Sami Chway, as he pirouettes to pluck one of the 1.200 loaves that, each week, emerge golden brown from his oven. He rips a pita apart and pops a piece into his mouth. "Here, try some."
Chway is a 32-year-old pita bread prince whose kingdom in one corner of the Trade Center Shopping Mall is fast emerging as an urban Middle Eastern oasis for embassy staffs pining away for the bread mama used to make. Many local restaurants import their pita bread from ovens in Cleveland or New York, and by the time it gets to Washington, well, it's lost its oomph.
Sami Chway couldn't stand the pita bread he was chewing around town. It was stale. It wouldn't open. So, one day two years ago, crowded into his sister's 25th Street efficiency, he decided to do something about it. "Mama," he said. "You know how to bake bread. Try and make some in the oven." And Sami Chway's down-home, finger-pulling-fresh pita bread was born.
A job as the Mayflower Hotel's dining room manager was abandoned.He moved mother and sister to a house in Alexandria, set up shop and built a gas-fired brick oven - the key to his bread. "My pita bread may not be the best in the world, but it's the freshest," he says. Forget modesty. It's the best pita bread this side of Brooklyn - a feather for a family without bakers' genes.
Chway's father ran a taxi service, ferrying townspeople 25 miles between Baaklene and Beirut. Olives ripened on 10 acres. Sami emigrated to study at the University of Michigan, moved to Washington, where, in 1972, his sister arrived in a job transfer by the World Bank. When the fighting in Beirut got so intense that they couldn't reach their mother on the phone, they sent for her.
Chway plans to turn the bakery into a Lebanese deli stocking oddments of Middle Eastern cuisine and, eventually, to open a first-class restaurant. For now, though, the business is bread and an assortment of other belt-looseners.
The sabaneh (spinach pies, 60 cents) open salivary floodgates, and one meat pie ($1.10) makes a meal. Or try the zaatar, a flat bread spread with sesame seeds, olive oil and thyme that is considered the social equal of America's Sunday-morning pancakes.
The kaak, a pita bread sprinkled simply with sesame seeds ($1 for two loaves) is tastier than plain pita. It's shaped like a wheel with a hole in the middle; you can slip your arm through it like a shopping bag. Have bread, will travel. In the mountain village outside Beirut where recipes were handed down from one Chway to another, men sporting unicorn hats came around the schoolyard yelling, "KAAK! KAAK! Hot bread was plopped atop the hats like a ringtoss.
Enter the kitchen. A stark white expanse dotted with dough-pummeling machines, ovens, refrigerators, chopping blocks and garbage can-size storage bins. The stage. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk goes the 55-gallon mixer, and out pop 1,500 white tennis balls of dough an hour. The globs sit in wooden boxes awaiting yeast's magic.
Next the balls are rolled into pizza-shaped sheets and shoveled into the 850-degree oven, where they balloon, only to emerge 90 seconds later, deflated. An assistant packages the bread for customers that have recently come to include several local restaurants and a few government cafeterias.
There are no additives, preservatives or flavor enhancers, only flour, salt, water and yeast. "Simplicity is the best way," says Samia Chway. "Our sweets are simple. Everything here is prepared one by one."
You can watch the drama from a window to the kitchen. And you may even catch Sami's mother pounding mincemeat in the corner, or sprinkling pine nuts on a meat pie, or knocking cookies out of a mold. And, while the smells seduce, you can see the bread from start to finish.
Ignore the mention of "pizza" on the menu. Chway means meat pie, a misnomer that thoroughly befuddled local officials who dropped by to levy the penny-a-pizza tax. "It's not a pizza," insists Chway. "It's a meat pie. We just call it a pizza because people around here don't understand yet what we mean by meat pie. But we're going to change the name." Will Sami Chway submit to the pizza tax enforcers? Or will be hunker down behind the mountain of pita bread, kaak, tamr, namoora, mamoul and baklava and fight it out?